When a motorist receives a traffic ticket the expectation is that if you plead guilty or are found guilty, you pay the fine. Most of us would agree that if you break the law then you should pay for it. But what if you really cannot “pay for it” due to life circumstances?
The Falls Church, Virginia-based Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) came out with a new study this week which concluded that the practice of taking away a driver’s license due to an unpaid fine is unfairly punishing the poor. The LAJC represents low-income Virginians and released the report a year after filing a class action that alleges that the licenses of one out of six residents were suspended in an “unconstitutional scheme.”
The report is the first known 50-state analysis of driver’s license suspension penalties for failure to pay court debts. Currently, five federal class actions seek to halt driver’s license suspensions for non-payment of fines. A federal judge dismissed the Virginia class action in March ruling that the issue should be decided by a state court. The LAJC continues to appeal the ruling.
There is another insidious aspect to the “unpaid fine” angle. Automated tickets are mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle. The owner may not even be aware that a ticket has been issued, particularly if the ticket notification isn’t sent to the correct address. A ticket is issued but not received, the hearing date passes with no appearance so the court rules “guilty” and subsequent notices of payment due continue to be sent to the wrong address, all while the car owner is often oblivious. Oblivious until such time the owner’s license is suspended for nonpayment.
The LAJC study demonstrates that taking a license away due to non-payment of fines can trap people in a mounting cycle of debt that can make a family’s financial burden even a more difficult black hole to climb out from underneath.
The LAJC study focused on five states, Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, because of existing litigation or because statistics were more readily available. Also these states allow license suspension even if cases don’t involve a traffic fines. Here are some of the statistics cited by the report:
- 4.2 million people have had their licenses revoked in the five states:
|State||Number of licenses suspended|
|North Carolina||1.2 million|
- 43 States and the District of Columbia suspend driver’s licenses due to unpaid fines and fees.
- Only four states require officials to determine whether defendants can afford to pay fines before suspending licenses.
- Nearly all states that suspend licenses may do so indefinitely.
Michigan has the country’s highest license reinstatement fees: $125 plus the $500 driver responsibility fee if convicted of driving with a suspended license. Since 2013, the state has assessed offenders with more than $165.2 million in such fees and collected only $99.3 million.
Detroit-based attorney John Philo, who has filed a Michigan federal class action on the behalf of two motorists, said, “Driver license suspensions for nonpayment of court fees equals job loss and a cycle of problems for persons without options.” He added that a person with a bad driving record may deserve such penalties but if they have money, they often can buy their way out of it. “Not so for the poor.”
Attorneys for Michigan’s secretary of state stated in a court filing concerning the class action that the issue should not be decided by a federal court and the “fines are rational.”
Phil Telfeyan, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Equal Justice for All, a non-profit that contributed to the LAJC report, said that nonpayment is a national issue. He added that if governments are suspending licenses as a matter of safety, such as with repeat DUI offenders, that argument might be made. He added, “But if a relatively safe driver is unable to pay a fine, shouldn’t they be provided some form of a payment plan so they can keep driving, keep working and keep their jobs?”
In June, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that would no longer allow licenses to be suspended for unpaid fines. Close to half a million Californians have suspended licenses and unfortunately the new law is not retroactive.
At some point, state administrators need to heed reports like that from the LAJC and realize that the overall cost to government (and to society) caused by driver’s license suspensions for all but the most serious violations is much greater than the ticket revenue they are so desperate to collect.